The Vine @ First-Centenary United Methodist Church
April 26, 2009
2 Timothy 1: 3-12 (NIV)
3I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. 4Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. 5I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. 6For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.
8So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, 9who has saved us and called us to a holy life-not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.
As many of you know by now, I will be making a move to a different church in mid-June. Sometimes, we United Methodist ministers can make a move to a new appointment without having to move houses. While this was an option for me in going to this new church, I have chosen to go ahead and move into the parsonage belonging to my new church, which means in two months time, I’ll be moving. While relatively speaking, I’m not going too far, that doesn’t change the fact that for the fourth or fifth time in about seven years, all my belongings will once again go into boxes. The only unfortunate part of my decision to move is that the belongings don’t pack themselves.
For those of you who have ever moved before, you know that it is no small undertaking. We have a tendency to accumulate things, and I think one of the reasons I actually don’t mind moving in some respects is that it keeps that accumulation in check. So, my packing adventure has begun.
I decided that before I started packing for this move, I was first going to do a little “Spring cleaning.” So I began with my clothes and my books. I will say this about clothes and books. First of all, the worst thing about the end of the growth spurt is the fact that clothes begin accumulating because technically, you can still fit into everything, so why get rid of it? In twenty years it might be in style again, right? I took three garbage bags of clothes to Goodwill. For some reason, however, I did not do so well with the books. If you are not aware of some of the stereotypes of pastors, let me fill you in on one, which is the fact that we all have a lot of books. And I am a stereotypical pastor. Hi, my name is Clair, I have a lot of books. When I went to purge my book collection, I was only able to come up with one small box of books that I was willing to remove from my library. Still, that’s one less box that will have to be loaded onto the moving van. Even though some of those clothes and books I parted with reluctantly, I simply decided early on that my move would be a lot easier if I took some of the ultimately unnecessary stuff out of the picture.
I imagine that many of you know this feeling. Even those of us who dread moving, or even just cleaning, know that usually we feel a lot better once the cleaning is done, once the junk is out. Here’s another way to think about it. I suspect that in our work, many of us find our desks getting cluttered at times. Or maybe our desk just stays in a constant state of clutter. I think we would also all readily admit that we are able to work better at that desk if it is clean, but getting to that point sometimes means we’ve got to set aside some time to put all those unnecessary papers and all that junk mail into the round file, or wherever it goes.
The same is true in our lives as Christ-followers as well. God requires much of us who claim the Christian faith. God wants more from us than simply warming seats in a church on Sunday mornings. God wants a priesthood of all believers. God wants every member in ministry. God expects that we will take the Kingdom that began with Jesus Christ and we will do everything we can to help that Kingdom spread and grow. But if we are going to be faithful in the work that God has called us to, then we have to be willing to push aside some of the things in our lives that are ultimately unnecessary. In other words, we have to be willing to make some sacrifices; and when it comes to being followers of Christ, sacrifice takes on many different forms.
The most powerful definition of sacrifice I have ever heard came from Kendall Soulen, one of my seminary professors. In my Systematic Theology class, Kendall offered this description, “Sacrifice is costly self-giving.” Costly self-giving.
What does costly self-giving look like? What is it to really give of ourselves? (I will admit that I’m feeling a bit presumptuous trying to offer answers to this question because I certainly do not have this all figured out, but hopefully these thoughts will help us think through this together.) I think costly self-giving looks like putting aside that deadline to provide a shoulder for a mourning friend to cry on. I think costly self-giving means stepping away from our agenda so we can hear the hearts of the people around us. I think sacrifice leads us to push aside our fears and open the doors for the “unknown.” I think costly self-giving means offering to God our “first fruits,” not just our excesses. I believe that sacrifice means we have struggles; that we know pain and disappointment in our lives, so that those persons who have never known anything but pain and disappointment might get a taste of God’s grace, mercy, justice, peace, and most especially, God’s love. This is costly self-giving.
Paul knew something of sacrifice as he wrote his letter to Timothy, a portion of which we heard a few moments ago. Paul frequently referred to himself as a prisoner for the sake of the Gospel, or a prisoner of the Lord as he does in this passage. But Paul was literally a prisoner, too, and he did experience suffering as he traveled around the ancient Near East spreading the gospel news and planting churches. Just as Paul exhorts Timothy, we too are called to join in suffering for the gospel, but to rely on God’s power in doing so. We, like Paul and Timothy are appointed to be heralds, apostles, and teachers of the gospel truth that Christ has abolished death and brought life and immortality. To Paul, that gospel truth is worth any suffering he experiences, and the same should be true for us. The gospel we as Christ-followers are called to proclaim requires that we make sacrifices and at times even suffer a bit.
Admittedly, what I propose above is a tough pill to swallow. Sacrifice is counter-cultural in every respect. America’s market-driven consumer culture sends a constant message that any sacrifices we make should be for self-gain, not at self-cost. And as Kevin Watson says in his newly released book, A Blueprint for Discipleship, “It is often easier to coast in our faith in the direction in which our culture leads us.” (39) But coasting at the whims of culture is not costly self-giving. So, indeed, to talk about really making sacrifice a part of our lives is to talk about not just a church revolution, but also a cultural revolution. Yet imagine how different our world might look if all people (or at the very least all Christ-followers) truly engaged in costly self-giving. Even that picture is somewhat difficult to imagine. To speculate a bit, I suspect that there would be fewer people on anti-depressants. I think there would be a greater understanding among varying societies, cultures, and viewpoints, which might also mean less war. I believe that through costly self-giving, poverty could be eradicated. By my estimation, these are just a few of many possibilities.
Our willingness to make sacrifices can have a profound impact on our local church and community too. That’s what Every Member in Ministry is about; committing ourselves, most likely at some self-cost, to living out the gospel message for the sake of God’s Kingdom. So, what does the Lord require of us? John Wesley tells us to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God by practicing the spiritual disciplines. The prophet Micah says that we are to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. But the guidance of both Micah and Wesley does not so much help us with the specific mechanics of being a member in ministry. In the midst of this Every Member in Ministry campaign at First-Centenary, I would lift up these things as we reflect on God’s call to action and Paul’s exhortation to join him as a prisoner for the sake of the gospel. The most important thing we can offer is our gifts, the gifts which God has given us. Maybe we are good at teaching, or visiting. Perhaps our talent is in planting flowers or raising a roof. Maybe God has given us the ability to crunch numbers, or organize a fellowship gathering. To each of us God has given different abilities, and part of being responsible stewards of the gifts that God has given us is to use them in service of God’s Kingdom, which requires not only the offering of our gifts, but also a sacrifice of our time, and perhaps even more than that at times. The only time we need be ashamed is when we are not living according to the gospel expectations. But that is part of being in the church, the body of Christ, we are called upon to make sacrifices in our own lives just as God in Jesus Christ made the greatest sacrifice for us.
I hope beyond hope that this world might someday know the true justice, peace, mercy, grace, and love that comes from God. It is to that end that Jesus Christ made the ultimate sacrifice, laying “down his life for us so that we might live, and so that we might be a sign to the world of the power of the coming kingdom of God.” (Watson, 41) It is for this cause, the kingdom cause, that we too are called to follow Christ’s example and to sacrifice; to give of ourselves at a cost, even a great cost. I believe that if we can truly engage in costly self-giving, then we will indeed see every member in ministry, and church revolution is a certainty; but even more greatly, I think that we will come to know and experience in its fullest sense the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.
Amen and amen.